Ever more accurate...

There are some things that we as botanical-style aquarists are starting to figure out, aren't we?

We're learning how to work with botanicals as never before, and making great strides at understanding and attempting to replicate the unique natural aquatic habitats from where our favorite fish come from. 

We're becoming ever more accurate at replicating them in a "functionally aesthetic" way. Different than what's been done in years past, IMHO.

After decades of playing with botanicals, and after five years of building Tannin Aquatics, I've formulated a fair amount of opinion on some of this stuff, as you might guess! 

fIn recent years, I've fielded questions from all sorts of hobbyists and representatives of various biotope aquarium contests and groups, which seem to have similar "themes", and I feel that there are some things which need to be clarified about the idea of how we represent natural habitats in our aquariums.

I mean, sure, one could say I'm a bit biased because I own a company which offers natural materials from around the world to enable hobbyists to replicate -at least on some level- the aesthetics- and more important- some of the function- of various aquatic habitats from around the world, and that I want to justify offering stuff that merely "represents" the materials found in the ______ region.

(Damn, that's a fucking mouthful, huh?)

I'll give you that.

And yeah, my orientation- my personal passion- the passion which led me to found Tannin Aquatics- was to curate, love, and offer my fellow hobbyists the natural materials they can use to create inspiring and compelling natural-style aquariums. To what level of authenticity we all aspire to is the choice of each one of us as individuals.

Where I take issue- like so many things in this hobby- is with attitudes. I mean, I've had people "call out" others because one of the leaves or whatever in a "Rio____ biotope aquarium" is "not endemic to the region", or whatever. I see hobbyists get trashed hard by others over stuff like that on a fairly regular basis.

Okay, I get your thinking, but really...

Even with the biotope aquarium contest winners, you can take this attitude and nitpick everything to the "nth degree":

I mean, what about the substrate?

Is it absolutely Rio Negro region "podzol" from the Andes? Is every species of wood used in the tank form the surrounding varzea forest? Or, is it just packaged aquarium sand...(gulp!)? Is every freaking bacteria, fungi, Paramecium, etc. the exact species that comes from the region being represented?

Huh? Is it? 

How crazy do we want to go when criticizing the efforts of others- and to what purpose?

Can these "armchair critics" really discern the decomposing leaf of Hevea brasiliensis, Swietenia macrophylla, or Euterpe precatoria from Catappa, Guava, Jackfruit, Apple, Oak, etc? I mean, seriously? I mean, I can't, and I work with this stuff every single day of my life...How can they? And, if someone cannot source these specific Amazonian leaves or seed pods, does that "invalidate" the aquarium from consideration as a "biotope aquarium?"

Does it even matter?

Whew, I AM getting worked up here, lol.

Again, it's the self-righteous attitudes surrounding these kinds of things that drive me crazy...And granted, these are extremes and not everyone who works in the biotope aquarium field or judges one of these contests is a straight-up douchebag. Most are simply knowledgable, well-intentioned hobbyists and scientists who want to see aquariums which represent the wild habitats as accurately as possible...

The point of my rant is that I think we all want the same thing.

We all want to represent. as accurately and faithfully as possible, the biopic niches we're into. And that is incredibly cool! But when we get caught up in semantics and petty arguments for the sake of...well, for the sake of "being right"- who does this help? Who does it hurt?

Doesn't this kind of criticism hurt those who are in a unique position to use their aquarium hobby talents to maybe, MAYBE reach a few non-hobbyists with their beautiful tank...perhaps raising awareness of the plight of that Borneo peat swamp or African flood plain? Does it discourage them from trying again in the future and sharing their work with the world?

Yeah. I think it does. And that sucks.

We need to lose the attitude on this topic.

I think many aquariums can be accurately labeled "biotope-inspired" or "biotope-style" aquarium. I think a lot of the cool work our community does is at that level. There is nothing wrong with that at all.

Think about more than just the look...think about how these aquariums FUNCTION over an extended period of times with all of these natural materials present...

THAT is the key. 

Not stressing out or attacking others because the aquarium doesn't have the exact seed pod that might be found in that garage which the hobbyist or contest entrant is trying to represent. I am passionate about this, because I receive way too many emails from hobbyists who are desperately searching for ________ pods or ________ leaves to fit these "requirements" forced on them...or at least, which they feel are being forced upon them!

I feel that more clarity and flexibility is required.

As I've indicated before, much of our materials originate from multiple geographic regions around the world, having been transplanted by man, although the "type specimens" of a given botanical (rather, the plant it is derived from) are found in a specific region. Examples would be Catappa and Guava, which are found all around the world, having been transplanted by man for centuries.

And I'll hazard a guess that most "critics" and "judges" in biotope competitions couldn't distinguish between another species of Artocarpus or a Jackfruit leaf, or a Yellow Mangrove from a Red Mangrove, or a Live Oak leaf, once they've been down for a while!

Same with botanicals...

So, the idea that the materials we offer and use represent many of the things found in natural waters is important to consider. Now, I would never discourage those who want 100% accuracy to pursue it; and I certainly offer not criticism of this desire. 

Yet, I think we need to still be a bit open-minded, in terms of what we use in our tanks to represent materials found in a given aquatic habitat.

This gives you a certain degree of "flexibility", in terms of what botanicals you can use in a given setup.

A lot you ask for materials that would be found in an "Asian blackwater pond" or a "South American rain forest stream"- more or less broad geographic descriptors, but we understand the desire to be a bit more accurate, particularly for more hardcore biotope enthusiasts and hobbyists entering competitions. 

I feel you.

We have made the attempt in our product descriptions to describe the point of origin or the botanical wherever possible, to give you some sort of a "guide" should you need it.

In the end, however, it's important to note that many of our botanicals should be thought of as "reasonable facsimiles" to the materials found in the wild aquatic habitats of the world. We think we have possibly the most comprehensive collection of botanical materials, curated and tested for safe use in aquatic displays- ever assembled in one place!

(when our supply chain isn't disrupted, that is! 😂)

Of course, it's nothing compared to what Nature deposits in the waters of the world, but it's a good start! We can't offer it all, but we can offer some of it!

So, it goes without saying that we feel a little bit of  "flexibility"- using what's available to represent whats out there- isn't a bad thing!

I'll tell you that most any of the natural materials we offer are okay for a variety of species of fishes. The qualifier is that most of the stuff we offer (botanicals and leaves, in particular) are geared towards fishes which come from aquatic habitats other than super-specialized environments like the African Rift Lakes, which are hard, alkaline lakes with more rock and sand than wood and leaves.

We have broken down our classifications of natural materials on our website into categories such as leaves, seed pods, stems and bark, and substrate additives. If you read our descriptions carefully, we try to provide not only the scientific name of the botanical in question, but the geographic origin if known. This is somewhat important for those of you who require the most geographic accuracy possible.

Ever more accurate.

Most of our items, however, fall into that category we've often referred to (rather unprofessionally, I must confess) as "generic tropical"- stuff that represents the materials you might find in tropical aquatic ecosystems around the world.

In other words, the cool-looking Cariniana pod from the Cariniana legalis tree of South America would be perfectly at home in an Amazonian-themed aquarium. It would also be perfectly acceptable in a Southeast Asian or African-themed tank, as it resembles some of the botanical materials that are found in the aquatic habitats of these regions.

"Generic Tropical."

Yeah, this concept might make a few hardcore biotope enthusiasts cringe.

However, I've seen dozens of biotope aquariums in big competitions representing very specific Asian or South American habitats, with substrates covered in Beech or Oak leaf litter from Europe or North America, and no one- judges included- batted an eyelash, so...

I'm just sayin'.

IMHO, we shouldn't get too bent out of shape about this.

The reality is that most of the materials which accumulate on the substrate or elsewhere in the aquatic habitats we try to recreate either were there to begin with (as in the case of the flooded igapo forest floors of South America), or fell into the water from overhanging vegetation, or were swept up by flooding, wind, or other natural events.

There is not some set model for how these materials arrive into aquatic habitats. And, to be objective,  I have to proffer that many of the materials that we offer for this purpose are from trees and shrubs often not found directly in the path of water.

Maybe they're from areas nearby.

Some are from mountainous regions or plains which don't have bodies of water in the vicinity that they're found. Again, they are selected for inclusion in our offerings because they have an appearance or characteristics which  represent those of materials that we've seen in various aquatic habitats.

Key word here: "represent."

"Generic tropical."

A perfect descriptor, IMHO

And of course, if you want to really "split hairs", you could say "generic aquatic", because several of the materials which we offer are from temperate regions of the world, too!

It all goes back to the level of authenticity that you are striving to achieve.

And some tropical-derived materials from one part of the world are perfectly suitable for- and I'd argue, indistinguishable from- from materials found in other regions of the world.

Yet they work perfectly in aquariums to represent them.  

As for obtaining the EXACT materials that you'd find in the habitats you're interested in? 

Keep striving. DO the ground work- you can get creative in sourcing some of them.

We spend enormous amounts of time trying to work with suppliers worldwide to source new and more "geographically specific" botanicals. Often times, local governments impose strict export restrictions on any significant quantity of some of these items, and to obtain them in quantities is simply not practical or legal. Others are very uncommon. Still others have species in their family which can represent them in appearance, function, etc.

My advice?

Don't stress over it. Enjoy it.

Incorporate the function and aesthetics from materials which represent those found in our favorite tropical aquatic habitats. Learn about the habitat, and how materials accumulate in the waters- and how they influence the fishes that live in them.

It's a fascinating pursuit in and of itself!

So, in summary, we may not always be able to offer the exact botanical materials that you see in the videos and pics you find, but most of the botanicals we offer are good representative of the materials you see in the wild aquatic habitats. I personally have spent many hours over the years studying photos and videos and getting a lot of inspiration for the types of things we elected to offer at Tannin.

You should, too.

Because you'll learn to appreciate the power of "generic", while striving to be ever more accurate in creating aquariums which replicate the look and function of the wild aquatic habitats we all love so much.

Stay creative. Stay resourceful. Stay disciplined. Stay calm. Stay happy...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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